Photo credit: Deborah Hodge
The Southwest border, because of its peculiar history, has long functioned as a locus of deep and abiding American insecurities — racial, cultural, economic, territorial. For most of my lifetime that fixation has resulted in little more than demagoguery and political silliness. Today the stakes are much higher, and the border has become a laboratory of America’s possible futures.
Previously — despite the presence of barbed wire fences, “No Trespassing” signs, highways, and international boundaries — there was something wild and unfettered about the border country. Even as the towns and cities became cluttered with strip malls and fast-food joints, the land communicated a sense of liberty, of unrestricted movement and freedom of action, that was undeniable and intoxicating. It is no accident that misfits and outlaws of every description have always gravitated to the Texas borderlands. Today, that atmosphere of natural liberty has been diminished. You can feel the change in the air.
When I first conceived of Texas Blood
the signs were proliferating but localized. Today they are unmistakable and national. Five years after I began writing, Donald Trump became president, elected on a platform of hatred toward immigrants. Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids are now sweeping the country, the expensive new border fence may soon be replaced by a border wall, and the fortified check points of my hometown are coming to a crossroads near you.
The border has long been a bellwether of American politics, a testing ground for new systems of enforcement and control. I have seen that surveillance and control system from the inside and witnessed the scope of its authors’ ambitions. What I learned did not put my mind at rest, and my anxieties were not primarily about the risk of “cross-over” violence from Mexico. The threat from the cartels continues to be serious — especially for the refugees who attempt the perilous crossing — but occasional depredations and atrocities have always been with us along the Rio Grande. I was more concerned about the “good guys,” about the costs of pursuing an elusive and perhaps illusory ideal of perfect security. Such costs are not reckoned in dollars.
It is no accident that misfits and outlaws of every description have always gravitated to the Texas borderlands.
How will the traditional inhabitants of this harsh and intemperate country — spiritual outlaws and high plains drifters, saints and harlots, river rats, ranchers, and roughnecks — adapt to the Gorgon stare of a total security state that demands limitless transparency in its relentless pursuit of undocumented aliens, dedicated drug mules, and imaginary terrorists? And what, in this new border-world, does it mean to secure
a 1,954-mile-long international boundary — of river valleys and canyons, mountains, deserts, and vibrant merchant communities straddling both sides of the line — that people have crossed more or less freely for hundreds of years? Is it akin to building a dam, like the one at Lake Amistad, to stop the unwanted flow of people and goods, or is there perhaps some other more subtle mechanism at work? And if the border is to be a dam, what happens if the pressure behind it grows too great?
The clamor for secure borders is a recurrent motif in American politics. Today, however, technological assets exist, or will soon exist, that are capable of transforming that nebulous objective into a regime of passive control and active surveillance that is historically unprecedented. Texas and American history continue to be shaped by our borderland troubles. In a very real sense, securing the border requires that the entire continent be treated as an extension of our international boundaries; total border security is a fantasy that can be approximated only via the oppressive illusion of total homeland security.
In Texas Blood
I follow the signs and traces of the new borderland economies of place and power, sovereignty and subordination, surveillance and control. But I also seek to understand the history of this landscape, and the various attempts by different peoples over the last 14,000 years to settle there.
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Roger D. Hodge
is national editor of The Intercept
and author of The Mendacity of Hope: Barack Obama and the Betrayal of American Liberalism
. Formerly he was the editor of the Oxford American
and Harper’s Magazine
. Hodge’s writings have appeared in many publications, including Texas Monthly, The London Review of Books, Popular Science, The New Republic
, and Harper’s
. His essay “Blood and Time: Cormac McCarthy and the Twilight of the West” was a finalist for the National Magazine Award for criticism. He lives in Brooklyn. Texas Blood
is his most recent book.